This morning, I’d like to share with you some of my reflections on growing up in this church and what I have learned from that experience about spirituality and faith – and the blessing that we have to offer the world as Unitarian Universalists in this society.
I grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. I was used to the seasons coming and going: the hot and humid summers, the crisp and refreshing autumns, the cold winters, the moist and lush springs – the air so filled with pollen that (some years) I was lucky if I could catch a breath between sneezes. When I was younger, most of my family lived around here, in this part of the US – on both sides, everyone from grandparents to cousins to parents to aunts and uncles – everyone except for one uncle’s family – lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Then, they gradually started moving away. North Carolina. California. Oregon. New Mexico.
The downside of their relocation was that they were now further away. But the upside was that now I had a reason to go on the adventure of going to visit them. Summer vacation was no longer just time off for school – it was now time that I got to spend long, languorous weeks visiting family in far-off places. My adventures to go see my grandparents in New Mexico were particularly exciting for a few reasons: 1) They had cable TV. If you haven’t experienced it, I’m not sure how I can convey to you the majesty of a child who is not accustomed to cable television – in the age before the Internet – getting to just sit and watch it hour after hour after hour for three weeks on end. All the music videos and movies one could ever want. 2) The delicious, sugary food. From sweetened yogurt to sugary breakfast cereals, there was this incredible smorgasbord of things that were not on hand at home with my Mom. Mmm – it was so good! 3) They had a pool in the backyard. Coming from a home that did not have that luxury, it was remarkable to get to just walk out the back door and jump in a pool. Incredible. 4) It was hot. This was New Mexico in the summertime. Southern New Mexico: Las Cruces, just north of El Paso, Texas. The temperature would regularly get up over a hundred degrees fahrenheit while I was there. I grew familiar with that moment when the door of the air-conditioned car is opened and the dry heat surges in and the rush is on to get into the nearest air-conditioned space as soon as possible, be it a movie theater or a bowling alley or a print shop. One side effect of that dry heat was that the water in the pool would slowly evaporate over the course of the day. Sometimes the garden hose would be left running – one end in the pool – in order to keep the water level up near the top.
This intense, dry heat thing was such a radical change from my experience of the southern New England climate. Around here, I grew up thinking of air conditioning as something of a luxury. But when I visited my grandparents, I couldn’t even conceive of being able to go without it. It was like humanity had carved out these air-conditioned safe havens in which to huddle during the blazingly hot Summer months. And this fit with the scenery, too: In Las Cruces, if one stood on the right hill, one could see the wall that demarcated the border between the edge of the city and the sheer desert. Unlike the carefully sculpted and settled New England landscape to which I was accustomed, there was the distinct sense of Las Cruces being sort of carved out of the local landscape – that the place would not be fit for human habitation without considerable work installing things like air conditioning.
Deserts are forbidding places for humans to exist. Certainly, many people throughout history have done so – including the Manso people who lived in the Las Cruces area when Europeans arrived. The Manso were nomads who roamed the area, generally staying close to the Rio Grande river. Because, of course, people need water in order to live. Certainly, the rivers around here were quite important to the so-called “Podunk Indians”. And, in the desert, the location of all-too-rare water was highly determinative of where and how people live their lives.
For me, as a teenager in Connecticut, UUS:East was like my social Rio Grande. I would wander the other six days of the week as through a social desert and then – finally – Sunday would come and I could go to church and youth group.
To be honest, I was actually not a big fan of coming to church for much of my childhood. Because Monday through Friday involved getting out of bed early for school and Saturday involved getting out of bed early to go do the laundry at the laundromat, I was very resistant to also having to get out of bed early on Sunday to go to church. But my Mom made me – because she thought it was important that we have community. So I came anyway, despite my resistance.
But, as I started entering my teenage years, my resistance to attending church gave why to yearning to attend church. Developmentally, my social life was becoming more important. And the social world on offer in the public schools felt deserted to me. Lacking warmth. Lacking care. Plenty of competitiveness. Plenty of insults. Plenty of ridicule.
When I came to church, though, that got flipped: here, there was a blessed lack of competitiveness, insults, and ridicule. Here, there was plenty of warmth, plenty of care.
And getting to go to district youth conferences – held in churches all over the district – and be in community with 30 or 40 other youth – people with whom I felt such affinity – was so, so invaluable to be me as a teenager.
The lush social environment of UUS:E and the wider UU world were a radical change from the intense social desert that I experienced in high school.
James Moffatt’s translation of Psalm 133 reads:
How rare it is, how lovely,
this fellowship of those who meet together.
Sweet as the sacred oil poured on the head,
that flows down the beard,
down the very collar of his robe;
Vital as the dew of [Mt.] Hermon
that falls on the hills of [Mt. Z]ion
For in this fellowship has the Eternal fixed the blessings
of an endless life.
I don’t know how many of you have experienced an anointing, but in my experience usually there’s just a small amount of oil applied to the forehead – just enough to coat a small patch of skin. And that’s in our comparatively privileged society. Imagine being in the desert of ancient Jerusalem and having the oil just poured on your head – so much that it flows down the beard and down to the very collar of the robe!
And the dew! Once again, in the desert, where fresh water is such a rare and valuable thing. Remember, all three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are all desert religions – they all grew up out of the desert – that place where life can feel so tenuous. Any form of water has incredible importance. Of course dew would have a mysterious sacredness to it – it magically appears at certain times of day – seemingly coming from nowhere – and just coats everything.
But, moreover, Psalm 133 is one of a cycle of “Songs Of Ascent” in the Psalms – songs that were likely sung by worshipers on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for one of the three Hebrew religious festivals that required their attendance at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Some of those pilgrims would not have to travel far, but others would have to travel quite a long distance to Jerusalem those three times each year. And, as they drew nearer to Jerusalem, they would likely have seen more and more familiar faces – the faces of people only seen three times a year. And so there would be the joy of recognition and reuniting with them.
But there was also the joy of coming together as a larger body. How many of you have ever been to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly? It was in Providence, RI last year and it will be in Portland, OR next month. One of the most beautiful things about GA is getting to gather and worship with thousands of other UUs – to get to feel in one’s body the power of thousands listening together, rising together, singing together, clapping together. I remember the first time that I went to GA, what a revelatory experience that was for me. I was moved to tears. I felt my heart burst open so wide.
When I read Psalm 133, I think of those beautiful experiences at GA. And I think of all those incredibly valuable district youth conferences that I attended. And I think of all those joyous memories that I have of growing up at UUS:E, getting to experience that overflowing anointing each and every week. It was truly a life-saving experience – for which I am eternally grateful.
And, yet, by the time I was 19, I had drifted away from UUism. It wasn’t until over eight years later that I realized that I was missing something.
I was in my senior year of college and was assigned a series of four papers: one on my intellectual self, one on my physical self, one on my emotional self, and one on my spiritual self.
When I got to that last one – on my spiritual self – I initially felt at a loss. What did I have to write about spirituality? And so I sat and struggled with that paper for awhile. And eventually I realized that, yes, in fact: Unitarian Universalism is a religion – and maybe I might be able to draw on my experiences growing up in this religion to talk about spirituality. And once that one realization landed, a series of others followed quick on its heals – and, by the time I finished writing that paper, I realized that I had been conflating the social and spiritual aspects of my experience at UUS:E.
Yes, I found far greater fellowship here than I did in my high school. Yes, I appreciated all the beautiful conversations that I got to have with so many beautiful people. But that was really just the upper layer of it. Underneath all of that was the spiritual sense of what it’s like to relate to people as if they had inherent worth and dignity. The spiritual sense of what it’s like to just be with one another in a way that embodies justice, equity, and compassion. The spiritual sense of accepting one another and encouraging one another to spiritual growth. The spiritual sense of seeking peace, liberty, and justice for all. The spiritual sense of respecting the whole web of life.
Those are all things that I could value or in which I could believe – but in embodying them with others, I aligned myself – I drilled into – my deeper connection with all that is truly valuable and beautiful in this world.
So, when I drifted away from UUism after high school, I met lots of great people and had some great adventures. But what I missed out on for stepping away from UUism – and what I didn’t realize that I’d lost until a teacher called my attention to it – was the spiritual sense of the deeper significance of how I am with others, and how they are with me. I didn’t realize it until wrestling with that paper on my spiritual self, but, in the absence of UU community, my spiritual “throat” was very parched. And that recognition led me back to Unitarian Universalism and, eventually, into the ministry.
Looking back and recognizing how spiritually rich my time in this congregation and in this district was, I realized for the first time the extent of the riches that I had been given growing up UU. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
And, yet, I also want to offer a challenge. Because, for one thing, I’m sad that it took so long for me to put those pieces together. And, for another thing, I don’t think that it’s sufficient for this to just be the oasis in the desert.
If there’s one thing of which we should be aware in this day and age, it is that we humans have the capacity to change the climate. Science and economics have taught us that, through our ingenuity and our resourcefulness, we can make an impact – for good or for ill.
When I think back to my childhood at UUS:E, one of the first things that I think of is walking around at coffee hour – in this very room (although an earlier version of it), waiting for my mom to be able to take me home, talking with various people. And, more specifically, I think about talking with an elder – Pat Fox – about our mutual affection for macaroni and cheese. In one sense: such a small, simple thing. In another sense: all the world.
How often in our incredibly age-segregated, socially-desertified society do we have those sorts of sweet interactions with one another? Do we get to be not just consumers or producers or employees or supervisors or coworkers or viewers or creators or students or teachers or an audience or a performer – but just people. Just people, experiencing life side by side with one another.
Those experiences of the raw, simple stuff of life – side by side with one another – that is the vein at the center of this river of fellowship. That is the nourishing water that we can tap into here. And that is the water that we can also bring out into the world with us. In every moment. When we are with people or with ourselves, we can bring that water that we carry in our souls. We can bring the openness that lets other people drink from it – and that inspires them to open, as well.
And then to talk about it with each other.
I know that, for me, it can be very challenging to be open like that in spaces in which I don’t already feel safe and secure. I have to always remind myself to do it anyway. That my faith – my many experiences is this space and in this faith movement – has shown me again and again how much is possible when we open our souls to one another, in even the most mundane ways, like sharing a mutual love of macaroni and cheese.
May this space, then, be one where we can return from the world outside and say, “I had the most wonderful conversation with this stranger at the store the other day…” or “You won’t believe the beautiful look in the eye of this person at whom I smiled the other day…” or “I saw this man who seemed kind of sad and I went up to him and we had this incredible moment together – and we both felt so bright afterward…”
Because it can feel like a desert out there. And we are the people of faith who declare that it doesn’t have to – and who know the spiritual riches that abound when share our water with others.
In the words of Saul Williams, may I let my “openness expose me to a truth I couldn’t find/In the clenched fist of my ego or the confines of my mind,” may I open myself to “represent a truth[…] that changes by the hour/And when you’re open to it, vulnerability is power/And in that shifting form […] find a truth that doesn’t change[…] the fact that God is strange”…
Talk to strangers
When family fails and friends led you astray
And Buddha laughs and Jesus weeps and it turns out God is gay
As angels’ and messiahs’ love can come in many forms
In the hallways of your projects or the fat girl in your dorm
And when you finally take the time to see what they’re about
Perhaps you’ll find they’re lonely or their wisdom trips you out
Maybe you’ll find the cycle’s end, right back where you began
But come this time around, you’ll have someone to hold your hand
Who prays for you, who’s there for you, who sends you love and light
Exposes you to parts of you that you once tried to fight
And come this time around you’ll choose to walk a different path
You’ll embrace what you turned away and cry at what you laughed
Because that’s the only way we’re going to make it through this storm
Where ignorance is common sense and senselessness the norm
And flags wave high above the truth, and the two never touch
And no one seems to recognize the symbols come to life
The bitten apple on the screen and Jesus had a wife
And she was his messiah like that stranger may be yours
Who holds a subtle knife that carves through worlds like magic doors
And when I look at you, I know I’m not the only one
As a great man once said,
“There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
I invite you now to please rise in body or spirit and join a song celebrating the articulating that water that we have to share with one another…